A third straight Pacific Division title was little more than a first step for the Phoenix Suns in their bid to win a NBA title.

They now look to close on the Dallas Mavericks for the best record in the Western Conference and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs as they begin a home-and-home series with the struggling Sacramento Kings on Thursday.

Phoenix (51-16), which has the second-best record in the NBA, trails Dallas by five games with 15 to play. The teams face each other one last time in the regular season on April 1 at US Airways Center, but the Suns need to take advantage of a current five-game stretch of their schedule that includes three opponents not in the top eight in the West.

The Suns did just that on Tuesday, when they beat Minnesota 108-90 to claim their sixth division title in franchise history. That crown appeared to be a formality, as Phoenix built a 16-game lead on the second-place Los Angeles Lakers.

Despite winning the Pacific, the Suns know there is more to accomplish after losing in the Western Conference finals each of the last two seasons.

"That means we've had a good regular season and we've positioned ourselves well for the playoffs, but the ultimate goal is winning a championship," said Suns shooting guard Raja Bell, who scored 22 points against the Timberwolves. "We understand we've got some work to do."

The sting of those playoff defeats, which include being eliminated by Dallas in six games in the 2006 conference finals, has Phoenix focused on winning its first NBA title.

"We're really proud of it," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said of winning the division. "We've won three in a row and it's never been done. It's one of our goals, obviously.

"We have loftier goals, so it's something good, but again it would have been better if we didn't have this little funk that we've been in."

That funk included back-to-back lopsided losses prior to Tuesday's victory, but the Suns have a chance to put those defeats behind them Thursday.

Phoenix has won four consecutive games against Sacramento, which has lost seven of its last eight games overall. The Suns have not won five in a row over the Kings since a 12-game run from Nov. 27, 1991-Feb. 21, 1994.

The current streak has seen the Suns win two games each at home and on the road while averaging 116.8 points. The squads meet again Sunday at Arco Arena, where Steve Nash had 16 points and 12 assists in a 105-98 victory.

Nash - the reigning two-time NBA MVP - is averaging a career-high 19.1 points and a league-best 11.5 assists and dominated the first game between the teams this season, totaling 11 points and 20 assists - two shy of his career best - in just under 33 minutes of a 127-102 rout at Phoenix on Dec. 5.

The Kings (29-39), who are three games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, are uncertain if mercurial small forward Ron Artest will be with the team for this game.

Artest will be arraigned Thursday morning in a Placer County courtroom - approximately 25 miles from Sacramento - on charges of battery and corporal injury to a spouse, false imprisonment and dissuading a witness from reporting a crime stemming from a March 5 incident at his home in Loomis, Calif. He was arrested and released from custody after posting a $50,000 bond. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison.

Artest, who had 11 points and seven rebounds in Sacramento's 95-89 loss to Minnesota on Wednesday, is expected to take a commercial flight to Phoenix following his court appearance.

The Kings, whose recent slump has followed a four-game winning streak, have not defeated the Suns since a 119-90 rout on Jan. 17, 2006.


Copyright 2006 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited